As congressional Republicans’ chief investigator, Rep. Darrell E. Issa has fast become the Obama administration’s worst nightmare, using the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee to look into the “Fast and Furious” gun-running operation, foreign policy catastrophes and, most recently, the IRS’ delays of conservative groups’ applications for tax-exempt status.
He’s also become a lightning rod for Democratic criticism, particularly after he called White House press secretary Jay Carney a “paid liar” this weekend.
But the verbal jabs aside, Mr. Issa is following in the footsteps of his predecessors at the helm of the committee, who often used the post to keep the pressure on presidents of the opposite party.
Indeed, analysts said Rep. Henry A. Waxman, the California Democrat who ran the committee for the final two years of President George W. Bush’s tenure, was also relentless — and neither Mr. Waxman nor Mr. Issa can compare to former Rep. Dan Burton, who issued approximately 1,100 subpoenas by himself when he chaired the committee from 1997 to 2002.
Those Burton investigations included the successful impeachment of President Clinton — though the GOP-led Senate did not convict the president on any of the charges. Though not an official investigation, one of the Indiana Republican’s more infamous demonstrations occurred when he shot a cantaloupe in his backyard in an attempted re-enactment of the “murder” of former deputy White House counsel Vince Foster, whose 1993 death was ruled a suicide.
“This committee — this is their job,” said David C.W. Parker, an associate professor of political science at Montana State University. “We have a more politicized atmosphere. [In] Oversight, they will investigate by mandate, but also by a broader partisan environment.”
Mr. Parker co-wrote a study that concluded congressional inquiries over the past 50 years or so tend to increase when the investigators belong to the party that doesn’t hold the White House.
Indeed, by one count, there were 605 investigations initiated in the first six months of the 110th Congress — when Mr. Waxman was chairman during the Bush administration — compared to 393 in the first six months of the 109th Congress, when then-Rep. Thomas M. Davis III, Virginia Republican, was serving as chairman under the same administration.
Mr. Davis looked into issues ranging from steroids in professional baseball to Mr. Bush’s response to Hurricane Katrina. Mr. Waxman certainly had his eyes on issues involving the Bush White House, but when he transitioned to chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee under President Obama, he led investigations into food safety issues and the circumstances surrounding the fatal 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
Mr. Issa, meanwhile, issued his first subpoena as chairman in February 2011 to Bank of America, in which he called for records related to Countrywide Financial’s VIP program, and has issued approximately 50 in total.
He held hearings early on in his tenure on the fiscal crisis at the U.S. Postal Service, allegations of impropriety in the D.C. mayor’s office, and the Department of Homeland Security’s open records policy, among other issues.
Mr. Issa has certainly continued those pursuits, and others, but by summer 2011, his name became synonymous with Congress’s investigation of the botched Fast and Furious scheme, when he quickly rose to prominence for his dogged questioning of Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. — a habit he’s continued through to the recent IRS scandal.
“I’m not saying that Issa is essentially going out there finding something willy-nilly,” Mr. Parker said. “It’s exploiting a problem, and seeing whether this works. When Waxman becomes chair, you see a lot of investigations under Bush.”
Mr. Davis, who was chairman of the committee from 2003 to 2007, said Mr. Issa is just doing his job. The Virginia Republican argued that in comparison to the hyperaggressive Mr. Burton, Mr. Issa is “very measured.”
Democratic aides, though, argue that Mr. Issa does operate more in the style of Mr. Burton, pointing to the unique power the committee chairman has to unilaterally issue subpoenas without the agreement of the minority party or a vote of other committee members.